Crucial Conversations QA

When Your Skills Aren’t Working

Dear Crucial Skills,

The new skills I learned from your training have been priceless to me. I regularly come away from conversations feeling proud of my own conduct, but I’m getting mixed reactions from others. I’m finding that even when I’m at my best people resist having crucial conversations with me. Sometimes my efforts are met with apathy.

How do I handle those people who don’t seem to have an interest in improving working relationships? I keep watching your demonstration videos, but I’m just not getting the same reaction from my colleagues in my real-life crucial conversations. Please help!

Dancing Alone

Dear Dancing,

Wouldn’t life be wonderful if everyone responded the way they do in videos? If only they’d let us write their script for them! Darned humans.

I’m sorry you’re not yet getting the results you want from applying your crucial conversations skills. I’m impressed with your sincerity and trust that if you continue to “Work on Me First,” you’ll find options to help you gain greater influence in positive ways.

I always struggle to answer questions people ask me about why others don’t respond, because the “truth” is probably so specific to their situation and I have no visibility into what’s truly going on beyond the short description I get from them. The same is true in your case, so I’m going to offer you a shotgun answer—hoping some fragment of what I say might hit a target you care about.

I can think of four broad reasons someone might not respond positively to your attempt to hold a crucial conversation with him or her. I’d encourage you to reflect on each and examine whether one or more might be contributing to your challenges.

1. Lack of safety. You’ve already highlighted this one. The other person may either not believe you care about his or her interests or feel disrespected in some way. I won’t dwell much on this one because you seem to be exploring it pretty skillfully.

2. Lack of time. We sometimes differentiate between situational safety and relational safety. Situational safety means that in this conversation someone doesn’t feel safe with you. The solution to this is to use your safety building skills.

Relational safety means that, over a sustained period of time, the other person has concluded that you either don’t respect him or her or don’t care about his or her interests. This problem won’t yield to the simple application of a few skills in a single conversation, but it can begin there. It can begin with acknowledging how you may have hurt safety and with your unilateral commitment to change your behavior in the future. That crucial conversation will be a good start, but safety won’t be fully restored until you change your behavior. Over time, you’ll find that your colleagues feel safer with you and engage more trustingly in your crucial conversations.

3. Lack of hope. Sometimes people don’t engage because they don’t think it will change anything. Perhaps they’ve had experiences with you in the past where they felt like the loser in the conversation—and had no alternate experiences where they felt that it served their needs to invest in the conversation. Let’s face it; a crucial conversation takes effort, and who wants to make that kind of emotional investment if it doesn’t do them good? If you think your colleagues might be in this camp, the way out is the opposite of the way in. You’ll have to find ways of demonstrating your openness to their needs and views in smaller conversations. Over time, their hope will be restored that conversations with you can benefit them.

4. Lack of upside. Another possibility is that others feel fine about having some crucial conversations with you. They may even hope that talking about tough things with you is productive—on some topics. But this crucial conversation—the one you keep trying to tee up—holds no upside for them. In this case, you have a mutual purpose problem, and the crucial conversation you need to hold is one in which you help them see the significant benefits of engaging in dialogue with you.

5. Fatigue. There are some people with whom crucial conversations become a daily occurrence. It seems like there is always some tumultuous and emotionally draining issue that they need to address. If you fall into this category, people might see you as a high-maintenance relationship and begin to avoid you. They feel weary when they see you and just don’t want to work themselves up for the chore of dealing with yet another tough conversation.

If this is the case, then you’ve got two challenges. First, you’ll need to rebuild your relational safety by creating dozens of nourishing interactions—experiences others will feel are fun, light, enjoyable, or rewarding. If the work required in a relationship far exceeds the fun, people start to think of you as medicine instead of pleasure—they’ll take you when they have to, but not when they can avoid it. You’ll need to change their perception by changing the mix of interactions they have with you.

Second, you may want to read the Choose What and If chapter of Crucial Confrontations. This chapter gives a good treatment of when we should—and should not—hold an emotionally challenging conversation with others. You may have fallen into the habit of dealing with everything rather than letting some issues slide—and expanding what we call your zone of acceptability. A bit more tolerance and patience may help you become easier to talk with.

I hope these ideas are useful as you reflect on what you can do to create the results that are important to you. And, if all of these fail, please remember our bottom line statement about crucial conversations: the skills don’t guarantee everyone will behave the way you want. They just increase the likelihood that you’ll be heard. At some point, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’ve done my best. And I’m done!”

Best wishes,

Trainer QA

How can I help participants who are creating their own change plan in Influencer Training create an actual results statement?

Steve WillisSteve Willis is a Master Trainer and Vice President of Professional Services at VitalSmarts.

Q When participants are creating their own change plan in Influencer Training, how can I help them create an actual results statement instead of getting bogged down describing vague goals or strategies?

I have a question from the Influencer Training, regarding Clear Measurable Results.

I found some very helpful information on the Think Like an Influencer web site. Joseph spoke about how this step breathes life into the Influence Challenge—by helping us avoid confusing means and methods with the end result. The connection that I don’t want people to miss is that this result statement will impact their personal motivation (Source 1). It should be answering why they should care about this challenge.

Yet I find it hard to get people in the class to get beyond vague goals (such as team building) or making their clear measurable result a vital behavior (such as hand washing compliance). I have tried to help participants that are coming up with vague goals by asking them such questions as, “What outcome are you not achieving or not achieving well because of poor collaboration and teamwork?” Hand washing compliance is a substantial goal, but it is a vital behavior for reducing nosocomial infections. What suggestions do you have for facilitating this part of the program?

I have found that some people have to think about their result statement between classes. It takes time for some people to absorb and sort out results from vital behaviors. As a facilitator, should I have the participants share their goal with me by the second day (we usually have a week between Day 1 and Day 2) to see if they are on the right track?

A This is a great question, and one that many people struggle with.

When we were first designing the course we had a bit of debate about whether to include results in the training. It seemed like most everyone was familiar with SMART goals, and the importance of having measurable outcomes. And so we wondered if there was a lot of value in covering it again. In the end we included it because even though people know that they should have measurable results, they aren’t always very skilled at coming up with results that are measurable, what you really want, and time bound. So with this in mind, here are some ideas that may be helpful.

I’ve found it really useful to have a discussion about common hang-ups and snags when introducing the three criteria of an effective result. We talk about examples of results that are specific and measurable, what you really want, and time bound, and then I ask the following question: “As you think about these three criteria, where do you see people in your organization struggle most?” People say things like, “What you really want.” At which point you’re able to have people give examples (both obvious and more subtle) of how and where people get off track. You can even use some of the common mistakes you’ve gotten from previous classes as examples for the class to analyze, and get them to describe why it doesn’t measure up.

I think your suggestion of checking in with people on their result is also helpful. At the end of day one, participants get a period of time to apply their newly learned skills to their own influence challenge. This is a great time to float between groups and check on how they are coming along with their results statement. You can coach, provide some examples, and in some cases, even give them assignments to do some research before they get too far into their Influencer experience.

Now, there have been times where I’ve run into some tricky situations (not all influence challenges are created equal). You mentioned hand washing as an example of means/ends inversion. We worked with a hospital that desperately wanted to achieve higher levels of hand washing compliance. We asked them the question you suggest (which by the way is a great way to get people to evaluate whether they’ve identified a vital behavior or a result), and it turned out that while they were interested in reducing nosocomial infection rates, they didn’t feel they could economically measure and prove a direct link between hand washing and their desired result. So in this case, they focused on hand washing as a vital behavior and a result. They realized that getting stuck on the result could derail the benefit from increased hand washing compliance so, in essence, they use hand washing as a surrogate measure of their desired results.

Hopefully these ideas will be as useful to you as they have been to me, and if you have additional tips that have worked for you please send them our way.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: For the Want of a Wheel

When I was a boy, only a handful of rich families had access to a television—or the newscasts that came with it. Consequently, the local movie theaters (which our family attended as often as three times a week) showed a newsreel at the beginning of each double feature. These ten-minute news clips updated audiences on everything from sports scores to changes in the war effort.

It was during just such a theater-hosted news broadcast that I first became aware of the Soap Box Derby. According to a newsreel that came on just before the MGM lion roared, boys “from all walks of life” would gather each year in Akron, Ohio and compete for prizes by building and racing a gravity-driven race car. After watching a young man leap triumphantly from his wooden vehicle, whip off his nifty-looking goggles, and claim a cash award, I wanted a soap box car of my very own. I craved one of my own. And why shouldn’t I compete? I certainly qualified. I was a boy. I was from some sort of walk of life. I could be a winner.

Of course, qualifying for the race was one matter, acquiring an actual soap box racer was an entirely different matter. This was the early fifties and our family was hardly flush with such things as wood, wheels, axles, paint, and tools. In fact, I didn’t even own a bike or pair of skates. That meant I couldn’t build a gravity-driven car, as most boys did, by piecing together parts from cast-off vehicles because we never had anything to cast off.

Nevertheless, this was a soap box derby and soap boxes could be found at a junk yard—which was kind of where I lived in the first place. Our humble neighborhood was knee-deep in junk. With a little luck, I would one day be hurling down a northeastern Ohio hillside in a vehicle of my own making. All I had to do was find the right junk and fashion it into my very own derby car.

At first, the task turned out to be fairly easy. Previous neighbors had built a tree house in the woods behind our house and since it had long ago fallen into disrepair I tore down the eyesore and scrounged a few two-by-fours to make up my chassis. Next, I pulled out and straightened old nails I found in boards left around empty lots. It only took me a couple of days to marry nails and lumber into a frame and when I eventually found an old soap box and secured it onto the frame; I had the makings of a race car.

But wheels were going to be a problem. The dumps I visited had been stripped of anything as valuable as wheels. Eventually, I begged four odd-sized wagon wheels from four different friends and ran a large nail through the center of each—the wheels, that is, not the friends. Then I hammered the nails into the end of the former tree-house two-by-fours that now crisscrossed the chassis. The only problem was that one of the two-by-four ends contained a huge knot so I couldn’t hammer the nail into it. Try as I might, it just bent the nail. I eventually borrowed a bigger hammer but that did nothing but take a large chunk out of the lumber. So there my potential award-winning vehicle sat in our basement—a complete soap box car—minus one wheel.

For the next few weeks, I begged my dad to help me nail in that last wheel. But he never got around to it. His job at the plant was physically taxing, it was a hot summer, and he just didn’t have any energy left over for nailing together a soap box derby car. “I’ll get to it later,” he’d say each day as he slowly climbed the stairs from our basement garage.

But Dad didn’t get to it later. My race car sat in our basement completely finished—minus one wheel. When I came home from school each day I’d walk by my three-wheeled contrivance and be reminded that we were poor, Dad wasn’t exactly a handy man, I didn’t finish the job I had started (something my mom was quick to point out), and I’d never get to feel the wind rushing through my hair.

I protected my homely little vehicle until the next spring when the rains subsided and I hoped I’d have another chance to race in the derby. But a boy can only hold onto a newsreel vision for so long. So, one day, when my older brother Bill needed a piece of rope, he took it off the steering mechanism of my car, and I didn’t even put up a fuss. I had let go of my dream. A couple weeks later, I detached the wooden soap box to use as a control module on the stove-pipe “rocket ship” I was now making in the back yard. Then, I stripped away the remaining lumber to be used as fuel for the rocket ship’s inaugural flight. Eventually, all that remained of my dream car was four wheels—bitter reminders of a job never finished.

I hadn’t thought of this particular disappointment in decades. But last week, I was reminded of that soap box derby car while standing on our bathroom scale and seeing a number I hadn’t tipped since I was in my mid 30s (I’d lost the equivalent of an nine-year-old boy). You see, I had been trying to shed weight for more than twenty years, but had never made any progress. Like most people attempting to lose weight, I’d experience some success with various diets, but then regain the weight and put my health at further risk.

Eventually, after yo-yoing for decades, I settled on the notion that if I was going to make heroic efforts to lose weight by suffering all the while, I’d never be able to keep it up. So I decided to find healthier, less sugary and fatty foods that I actually enjoyed eating. Next, I learned how to eat smaller, less caloric meals to avoid being hungry so often. Then I started exercising by engaging in activities I actually enjoyed. Next came weighing myself daily followed by learning which restaurants carried healthy food I liked, and so forth. As the months rolled on, board by board I cobbled together my very own soap box diet plan. And like the original homemade vehicle from my youth, my plan remained incomplete and unsuccessful for quite a long time.

Then one day, I decided to seek help from a trainer who taught me correct exercise techniques and offered me constant encouragement. Soon I was shedding pounds. In fact, I’m now halfway to my goal (eventually, I need to lose the equivalent of a twelve-year-old).

Why was I finally successful after so many failures? It would be easy to credit the trainer. It would also be wrong. Every sensible thing I had done up until that point was an important part of my success. I really did have to find healthy foods I like, learn how to navigate restaurants, calculate my daily caloric intake, and so forth.

It turns out that, as with my race-car building, when it came to my health goals, I had done most of what I needed to do, but hadn’t quite reached critical mass. The tactics I had employed hadn’t been wrong, they just hadn’t been enough. As was the case with my derby car, I had been one wheel short of success. In my case, including one more change strategy—finding a trainer—put me over the top. But it was the trainer, plus everything else I had already done, that ultimately led to my success.

Now I’m left wondering how many other times in my life have I completed most of what I needed to do in order to succeed, but failed to achieve my objective for lack of one more technique or change strategy. How many times have I been one wheel short? The thought of putting in 90 percent of the work only to enjoy—not 90 percent but precious little of the benefits—gave me the willies.

I know from recent research conducted at VitalSmarts that when people use four or more change strategies when trying to reach a goal, they are four times more likely to succeed than those who use three or fewer. At the corporate level, the same research team learned that when leaders move from implementing just a couple of influence techniques to using four or more, they increase their chances of success by a factor of ten. This encouraging data certainly supports the idea that when you’re faced with challenging and persistent problems, you need to add to and adjust your plans until you eventually break through to success.

So, today I offe
r a message of hope. If you’ve tried to solve a problem in your personal life or within your company but have come up short, maybe you’re closer than you think. Maybe you’re about to break through to success. Look at your latest barrier, add one more influence strategy to your current plan and see what happens. Chances are you’re just one wheel away from the feeling the wind in your hair.